Senate passes defense spending

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 2, 2009

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I have the opportunity to participate in many of the debates that shape policies important to our nation’s defense and the men and women of our armed forces. One of the most important bills the committee considers each year is the defense authorization measure, which sets the policy and spending priorities for the Department of Defense. Following committee approval, this bill was recently passed by the full Senate. This important measure authorizes funds our troops need to achieve their objectives in the field, as well as a number of provisions essential to defense installations in Mississippi.

Providing for troops

The Senate-approved defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2010 provides $680 billion in overall funding for Pentagon activities, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure provides for a 3.4 percent across-the-board pay raise for all military personnel, as well as authorization to increase the size of our active-duty forces by 70,000.

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Additionally, the bill provides $6.7 billion for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, which are specially armored and designed to protect our troops from roadside bomb attacks. Notably, the bill includes an increase of $1.2 billion above the president’s request for an all-terrain version of the MRAP created for deployment in Afghanistan. As we learned in Iraq, funding for these armored vehicles is critical to protecting our troops as they carry out their mission.

Of additional importance to the efforts of our troops in Afghanistan, the defense authorization bill approves $7.5 billion to train and equip the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. This funding is essential because an established Afghan security force that can stand on its own against the Taliban is an important component of keeping America secure and achieving our military objectives in Afghanistan.

Mississippi projects

Mississippi has long played a significant role in helping defend our country. Accordingly, this bill provided authorization for several military installations throughout our state, including:

– $16.1 million for a combined arms facility at Camp Shelby

– $10 million for an aircraft maintenance facility at Columbus Air Force Base

– $9.8 million for an aerial port squadron facility at Keesler Air Force Base

– $14.3 million for the Monticello National Guard Readiness Center in Monticello

In addition, the bill authorizes funding to protect shipbuilding jobs on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Included in the bill is full funding for the DDG-51 destroyer, a ship that will be built at Pascagoula’s Northrop Grumman facility. This ship is a proven guided missile destroyer and one of the Navy’s most capable platforms. Also of significance for our state, the legislation includes authorizations for several university-based defense-related research programs at Mississippi State, University of Mississippi, Southern Miss and Jackson State.

Hate crimes prevention

Too often during the legislative process, controversial provisions are added as riders to completely unrelated bills that are on the fast-track for approval. That was unfortunately the case during Senate consideration of the defense authorization bill. During debate, Democratic leaders offered hate crimes legislation as an amendment to the defense bill. I voted against this ill-advised amendment, though it went on to pass by a vote of 63-28.

Throughout my tenure in Congress, I have consistently opposed efforts to enact hate crimes legislation because I believe such laws will create a special class of citizens. There are already federal and state laws which protect the rights of all people. I believe we should punish crimes severely and swiftly; however, we do not need to delve into the motivations of the perpetrator in order to do so.

The House of Representatives passed their version of the defense authorization bill in June, meaning the two bills now need to be reconciled in a conference committee. I am hopeful the unrelated hate crimes proposal will be dropped during these negotiations. At the same time, I will be working to ensure the relevant provisions — particularly those important to our state — are retained in the final version of the bill.

The defense authorization bill is an important item on Congress’ annual to-do list. On balance, the bill we have crafted is good defense policy that will protect our soldiers in the field, advance our national security interests, and provide needed funding for critical defense facilities in Mississippi.

U.S. Senator Roger Wicker represents Mississippi.